Death, Where is Thy Sting? Here, Now: Or So It Seems...
I never had to consider death before, never had to witness its relentless impinging on life. Now it’s all I see. I help my elderly neighbor rise from her chair and walk ten breathless glacial steps to her couch on a foot that was severely burned in the shower when she was unable to lift her hand to turn off the hot water. Her back is immobilized by its hunch and I feel her underarm flesh, soft and slack, as I lower her down. She groans and winces.
Her name is Hideko, a Japanese bride to a navy officer who now goes by the Anglicanized “Kay”. Her husband died four years ago and now her decrepitude has made her a prisoner in her home.
It has become desperately clear she needs to go to a nursing home and a couple of days later when some friends and I take her to her doctor’s appointment, she is hospitalized. After she is settled in her room we huddle into the elevator and ride up to see her, and I feel grief surging upward again, its appearance unsolicited and most inconvenient.
The nurse can’t get the IV in. She rotates my neighbor’s arm, watching intently for veins. She tries one here, another there. She pinches the flesh beneath the tourniquet with her gloved hand and tries again. She flushes and heaves a sigh of frustration and makes a joke about uncooperative veins. She calls another nurse in and they maneuver my neighbor’s arm this way and that as she winces and tries to be brave, tries to be still.
And my eyes start to burn as memories materialize, memories and imaginings: dad in a hospital bed, arms and hands bruised with red and purple blooms from the IVs and prednisone. Lia shooting up alone in her bedroom.
“I don’t understand,” I’d asked the detective, after he’d said she’d had a homemade sharps container halfway full of discarded needles under her sink. I had to ask what a sharps container was. “If it was just you and you weren’t sharing your needles or anything, why wouldn’t you reuse the same one over and over again?”
He’d shrugged, but he must’ve still been working the old Columbo routine at that point, waiting out my apparent naivete to test its authenticity. “Needles get dull quickly, that’s why people don’t reuse the same one,” Steven had told me later. Oh, I’d said. Oh.
I was hoping the tears would just be a few, a trickle, when they start there, sitting in the hospital watching the nurses perforate my neighbor’s weary flesh again and again. But the upwelling of sadness keeps gathering and the wraith of grief haunts me anew and I retreat out of the room with mumbled excuses, pawing at my eyes, feigning something caught in one. Trying to find somewhere private to cry in a public place when you’re already crying is a harrowing experience, let me tell you. I wander down no less than three halls until I finally find a somewhat remote corner and let loose, the sobs cresting some dammed place in my heart and rushing down the leeward side.
Why all this dying, this failing and fallible flesh? I wonder as I weep. Whereas the kingdom, here and now, had been so visible to me a few short days ago now the kingdom not-yet-here reminded me stingingly of its absence. And each time I try to force an end to the weeping, try to sniffle and collect myself prematurely, new gales of sorrow wrack my body and fresh tears flow. My knitted sweater sleeve isn’t absorbent at all and I feel like I’ve just moved around the snot and tears on my face. I suck in a breath and turn, silently asking God to give me the courage, to give me the strength, to not turn tail and run and get as far as I can away from all the dying.
I could avoid it, all this extravagant dying, only as long as I could avoid Jesus. But now I can’t look away, can’t unsee it, can’t dance as fast as I can anymore in a fool’s effort to cheat the inevitable.
We always carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may be also revealed in our bodies. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal bodies, my children and I recited as we memorized 2 Corinthians 4 last year, tripping up constantly on the juxtaposed verses that end the same. Death, death, death. Yet life, life, life. Sometimes they’re so knotted up together in Jesus that you can’t tell one from the other.
But life is the end, always, and death is its servant.
The next day I usher the kids into the hospital elevator again and let Arrow punch the “3” button once, twice, until it glows. A nurse pushes in a man in a wheelchair. “Doctor told me I had to come here,” he shrugs as he speaks to the nurse, who smiles reassuringly and tells him he’ll get some rest. The oxygen cannula is crooked on his face and his skin looks jaundiced and wrinkled in thin crepey folds like the skin of a blanched peach. I think of dad, of the tobacco-cured skin, old before its time.
Kay smiles weakly when we walk in. M*A*S*H* is playing on the TV. She tries to raise her arm and grimaces.
“My arm,” she says, and I have to lean in close to hear her, her voice gravelly and still inflected by her Japanese accent. “Was burning all night last night!” I peer at it between the folds of her blanket and see the ruddied flesh, dappled by blood blooms and bruises.
I exclaim and gently touch the papery skin. “What happened?!” I ask.
“Dr. Collins say the nurses put in IV wrong,” she says, and her very words wind her, like my dad toward the end. She has never smoked but after eighty-eight years her body grown frail betrays her, her lungs tire and begin to wear out.
In a photo on her shelf at home from when she and her husband lived in Hawaii, she is bright and fresh, barely thirty, a red and white lei around her neck, her shoulders square. Now they hunch unevenly and draw up toward her ears. The oxygen lines branching out from the cannula under her nostrils dig into her cheekbones and she asks me to adjust them.
“There,” she sighs. “That better. Thank you” She breathes again for a few seconds. I notice that her other arm, the one closest to me, is hideously swollen on the underside of her forearm, a heavy bulbous pouch straining against the band of her hospital bracelet. I gasp: “What happened to this arm?”
She shakes her head and her brow furrows. “Just swollen,” she says. I pull gently on the neon green bracelet, ask if she wants me to take it off. “No, it okay,” she murmurs, and changes the subject. “The PT nurse,” she begins. “Pt nurse, she big, heavy girl. She come in this morning while I am asleep and start moving my legs around!” She laughs. “I was asleep! She wake me up, moving my legs all around!” Suddenly she winces again. “My foot,” she says. “It hurt bad.”
The podiatrist comes in, a giant of a man with black Poindexter glasses. He unravels the bandage around her foot and I see the angry mottled wound. The skin looks gelatinized and naked, veined with purple and red. But the doctor smiles. “Almost healed!” he declares jauntily, and rewraps it and maneuvers her sock back on over misshapen toes bent and gnarled like tree knobs and capped with jagged pearlescent toenails. It doesn’t look almost healed to me, but I'm no doctor.
A young man in scrubs brings in the lunch tray, his hairnet knotted on his forehead. He sets the tray in front of her, chicken-fried steak and a bland-looking baked potato and peaches drowning in viscous syrup. I thank him and cut the steak for her into small cubes.
I ask her if she wants her potato buttered and she says yes and I peel back the label on the tiny plastic cup of butter and slather it on.
Sour cream? I ask, holding up the tube. She nods a little and I tear open the tube and squeeze it out like toothpaste on the steaming meat of the potato.
I sit back, satisfied. I have helped.
But then I look at her arm coursing with burned blood and the other swollen with God knows what and wonder how this will happen, the eating. Her swollen arm trembles with the effort it takes to raise it an inch. She moans and lets it fall again and closes her eyes.
And then I realize I have to feed her, have to bring the food to her mouth. No, I think, NO. And my eyes are wet.
It’s not that I don’t want to help. It’s not that I don’t want to serve her. But I fear the intimacy, the tenderness. I fear her indignity, I fear my indignity. I fear the nearness, the realness. I fear the body and the blood, the real food and the real drink.
I could press a button, send the nurse scurrying in, pawn it off on her, I think. Maybe her daughter should be doing this, I think. But I know: her daughter is mentally handicapped, unstable, barely able to care for herself let alone her enfeebled mother. When I talked to her about Lia months ago she told me Sachiko was adopted too, from an orphanage in Japan. They hadn’t realized there was anything amiss, anything unusual until she became a preschooler. Now she lives in an apartment somewhere with her boyfriend and there is no one else to feed Kay but me.
I don’t know how I got here but here I am and Jesus says feed my lambs. Feed my lamb with the swollen arm and blood-blotted skin and the scabbing peeling foot, my lamb who was once a beautiful shining bride with a hibiscus-lei and high cheekbones and youth on her side.
I breathe. I hear the clock ticking and the monitor bleeping and Alan Alda saying something exasperatedly on the TV.
And finally I ask it, the question that terrifies me: “Do you want me to help you eat?”
She opens her eyes and looks at me, almost as if startled. And she nods. I pick up the fork and sort through the cubes of the meat and choose a small one and stab. I lift it to her mouth and she receives it, chews diligently.
“A little tough,” she says. But she asks for more. And one by one I serve her cubes of breaded meat and she chews and swallows and soon a third of the slab is gone. But then as I go to serve her another bite she shakes her head and gathers her breath and whispers “potato”.
So I mash the potato with the fork and serve her that, remarking on my fine ability to craft bites that include potato, butter and sour cream. Her smile is slight and small as if even that is a burdensome effort but it is there. I grip the cup and place the straw to her lips of some sugared drink that is supposed to help speed the healing of her foot.
We have taken the Lord’s Supper, the two of us, in that hospital room stinking of antiseptic, with bland, tepid hospital food and orange-flavored sugarwater and laugh tracks in the background.
This is the bread that came down from heaven, Jesus said. It is Him, here, now, holding it all together, permeating secular flesh with unspeakable holy, making all things new, even tired flesh speckled with age and my old mind, crusty with self-preservation and avoidance.
You, God says to me, and I whimper back in terror, anyone but me. But he persists, gently, firmly, tenaciously: “for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable,” Paul says.
Tell her I love her.
Visit him in prison.
Feed my lamb.
And still I seize wildly at the air for reasons why not, enumerating duplicitously humble protests first - I don’t have anything worthy to say, and my lips are unclean anyway, my motives are mixed, I’m practically agnostic thirty percent of the time – before changing tactics and rattling off excuses which sound eminently reasonable and practical but which I utter with rapidly waning confidence – well, I really need to get going. The chickens need to be locked up. And besides, I’m not a professional feeder-person. What if I give her too big of a bite and she chokes or I jab her lip with the tines of the fork? This could really end in disaster. Best not to venture it at all.
And a pinging volley of “what ifs” bleat despairingly in the echo chamber of my flesh and crescendo toward some critical mass of paralysis.
Do I just imagine it, or does He laugh? He laughs and calls me daughter again and reminds me my competence comes from Him alone (2 Cor 3:5) and is not mine to own nor mine to disparage.
How I’ve tried to make him a small god again, a middle-management god, wont to call but not fulfill, to make impotent wishful gestures but not to deliver. I remember what it means to say He is Lord. He is the ground, the foundation, He is I AM.
And I am still and I know it again: the fearful wonderment, the pride-pulverizing oblivion of crab-crawling back from that mountain aflame with a God whose triple-mega-G-force holiness smashes atoms like gnats and against which I scramble to brace myself but there is no bracing because there is nothing else to brace against and I wait, eyes wild and rolling, for obliteration to come. But I see it metamorphose through the blood of Christ into Mount Zion, every crag and crevice gilded, its crowning fields dappled with nectarous flowers dripping mercy and grace and its walls echoing with the lilting symphony of electric neon ecstasy and all this flagrant beauty never exhausts itself, never grays, never dims. (You simply MUST read Hebrews 12. You can’t make this stuff up!)
His power smashes atoms, His Hisness enfeebles our tongues, makes mincemeat of our logic, it stultifies, it tangles up my mind (with apologies to Bob Dylan). Yet His love comes so low: it suffers, it woos, it holds back nothing; He longs for the creatures His hands have made (apologies to Job).
The more “good” I do, the more good He does for me, and the more I realize I have no righteousness of my own. Zero. Zilch. Nada. It’s all Him: the grace which brushes the scales from my eyes, the grace which lifts the forkful to the chapped lips, the grace which loosens my lips to stutteringly speak His truth.
Denis Johnson writes in the short story “The Starlight on Idaho” of a corrupt, drug-addicted FBI agent who encounters God in prison. He says as he lies in his cell “that cell is sucking the drugs and the fight right out of me and giving it to God and God is squeezing it in his fingers, man, every last fiber of my soul in the almighty grip of truth. And the truth is that everything I’ve done, every thought I’ve thought, every moment I’ve lived, is shit turned to dust and dust blown away. God, I said, &*%# it, I’m not even gonna pray. Squeeze my guts till you get tired, that’s all I want now, because at least it’s real, at least it’s true, it’s got something to do with you.”
And that’s all I want, too, because it’s got something to do with Him. Once you’ve tasted the new wine, there is no going back, even if it means crushing. We know the old isn’t better – the old wine of vain striving and a self-hewn righteousness that swung us like a pendulum between puffed-up pride on one side and miserable self-loathing on the other.
I pray from the secret place, please, Jesus, give me the new wine. Make me into new wine. Give me real food and real drink. Give me You.